Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Happy Little Halloween Project

Each Halloween, I assign a fun math project (fun in the sense that it doesn't involve math), whereby students get chance to creatively express themselves. Some jump at the chance to show an artistic side of themselves that they don't always get to show in a math class, while others don't bother jumping at all. Still others barely move, griping, "Do we haaaaaaaave to do this?" "Of course not!" I chime. "You could take a free zero instead! What a bargain."

The mathematicians and other math students have two weeks to either write a spooky, mathematical tale using at least 20 math terms, such as "infinity," "indeterminable," "function," and "WRONG ANSWER." The terms don't even have to be used in a mathematical sense, but must be relevant to their story. To avoid long, banal, digressions, and to support concise, cogent efforts, I limit students to one double-spaced, typed page. This instruction is designed to keep the number of single spaced, handwritten stories to the teens.

Some students go out of their way to honor my rule, using large 24 point font, triple-spaced, half-page. Their stories are seldom entertaining, witty, clever, or stories at all. For these efforts, their percentage grade usually matches the proportion of the paper their refuse takes up, with additional deductions for wasting ink and paper.

Every year, I feel fortunate if I get one story that is memorable (and I'm not talking about stories where "the evil Korpi zombie" dies, gets "kicked in the transcendentals" or screams "mother function" at his students.) The true works of art weave a creepy, suspenseful tale of mathematical mastery, filled with puns, allusions, and the classic twisted, unsuspected ending. These gems make the project worthwhile for me.

So what if a math student doesn't feel like he is a Stephen Hawking King and can't express his morbid, menacing, mathematical musings in words? Well, for the M.C. Eshers in my class, I also give students the option of drawing a Halloween scene on a quarter-sheet of poster board, with at least 17 hidden mathematical symbols in the picture and a "solution key" on the back. These are also fun to receive. Fist of all, you would be AMAZED at how many different sizes standard poster board comes in and how creatively a student can take "one-fourth" of it, especially if they are frantically searching around in their locker for one the morning it is due.

I've had projects turned in on standard notebook paper, full-sized poster boards, and 3 by 5 inch note cards. I've had some that were colored, I've had some that were not colored, and I've had some printed out on a computer, then taped to poster board. Very few of them actually meet the criteria, and those that do get LOTS of extra credit.

Then there is the hidden symbol aspect. Well, if they can't cut a poster board into fourths, how adept do imagine they are at "hiding" math symbols? You are correct--they CAN'T! Some are successful and masking a handful of symbols (the infinity symbol works well for ghoulish eyes), but I can tell exactly when the novelty of the project wore off and they were ready to move on to watching the shiny blinking lights for a while. It's like a bagful of math symbols spilled out onto their drawing, falling where the may. SOME students, however, are so adroit at concealing their symbols that I cannot see ANY of them. These are the same individuals who also conceal their ENTIRE drawing, turning in a blank, or "invisible" as THEY claim, paper. If only they put as much creativity into their project as they do in making up excuses for their lack of project, they'd be on their way to valedictorian!

The day the projects are due, which is usually the day of or before Halloween itself, we spend the entire class period presenting both the stories and the illustrations. Students get an opportunity to show off their masterpieces to their peers, proudly heralding their mathematical innovativeness and artistic genius, creating an ambiance of sheer terror and horror as they masterfully work their way through the delivery. No one ever achieves this, but they do it for the free candy I give them for presenting.

In the past, I have even turned off all the lights in the room, put spooky sound effects on, and had students deliver their message via a flashlight under their chin. Apparently, I was the only one who got a kick of the whole thing. Unable to coax presenters with candy, or even with the threat of starting a new math lesson, I gave up this format. Now, a few brave souls stand up, say "This is my drawing of some pumpkins. The eyes are triangles, and there is an infinity symbol here for the ghost's eyes. Can I have a Snicker's bar please?"

If life-threatening is scary, and scary is good, then the best picture project I ever received was the first year I did the project. That year, not envisioning the variety of interpretations the students would have on the project, I failed to ask the students to keep their stories clean and their pictures tame. I got plenty of stories with foul slang and inappropriate subject matter, but the most frightening picture I have ever received to this day came from an unassuming little girl who was in the exchange student program from the Netherlands. Apparently, the Dutch embrace the horrific as commonplace and benign. I was drawn in a bloody mess in front of my chalkboard (which contained all but one of her "hidden" symbols) with a hideous monster" holding my head in one hand while shooting the "bird" with his other hand. The picture also shows my lifeless bloody body falling limply to the floor, and my "Teacher of the Month" shirt is covered with my entrails. She entitled the picture: "The Precal Monster Strikes Again!" (photo at top of this entry. Click it to enlarge and to see the hideous details.) I was shocked, scared, and really scared. She told me that she actually LIKED math! I gave her a 100 on her project (I was afraid NOT to.) I kept the picture as evidence in case anything was to later happen to me. The little girl was soon after deported back to the Netherlands for an unrelated incident. I wonder if it had anything to do with her history project--she told me she HATED history. By the way, her Monster's eyes were the infinity symbol.

Since that time, I have given more explicit instructions and guidelines for the projects. I still don't mind being the bad guy in the stories, but you aren't allowed to "gouge out my eyes anymore with a circle compass." Although the new parameters and limitations make for tamer stories and drawings, I still enjoy doing the project, because I DO get a chance to see a different side of students' abilities. I have a small collection of the best ones stashed in my filing cabinet (next to "E" for "Evidence.) I think the best part about it is encouraging students to present their creations, which gives me a chance to give away all my old leftover candy from Halloween the year before.

Who says that Snicker's bars aren't better with age. Those who can't determine what a quarter sheet of poster board sure aren't going to disagree (or even notice.)


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